Zen Teaching

I have been frustrated lately by my students' collective resistance to the experience of literature. In search of a remedy to the problem, I turned to the Alan Watts Podcast (not really: I turned to the Alan Watts Podcast because I wanted to distract myself from my problems in the classroom).

In my earbuds, Watts was talking about the strategies used by the zen master. Apparently, the zen master tries to refuse whatever student shows up on his door: "I have nothing to teach you." And if the prospective student continues, the zen master tells him the monastery is too poor to take another student. If the student still persists, the zen master makes him wait outside for a week, letting the student in for shelter only at night, and expecting that the student will not fall asleep.

"Zen master, teach me how to do zen," begs the student. And the zen master presents the student with some silly koan or other -- maybe he puts tar on his left hand and feathers in his right hand, rubs them together, and tells him to pick the feathers out. Or he tells him not to think of a green elephant, etc. Or he tells them to think about thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking.

He persists in these reversals until the student recognizes (or rather, experiences) zen. I love this approach. I admire it. It comes naturally to me. It is how I want to practice.

But my students are essentially unwilling. As I mentioned the other day, 18 out of 19 of them would take the diploma and run if I could hand it to them -- they are diligently incurious. Faced with their passive resistance, I am forced to become the teacher I never wanted to be: active, demanding, authoritative.

And here is where I would have said to myself, one year ago, "No!--don't do that! Sit there for as long as it takes. If you have to waste two classes sitting in silence, it is worth it!" What I didn't realize last year--what I couldn't have known--is that our academic department, indeed our entire college, is beholden to the standards of an accrediting agency.

In case your reaction is, "Well, back them into it (or, 'zen them into it')," let me make one thing clear: students who take my introductory writing class must be able to (I'll spare you the ugly actual details) or else the department loses certification:
  • Tie their shoes
  • Hopscotch
  • Walk a balance beam
  • Stand on their head

Now, is it possible to be the zen-practicing professor if you find yourself students who want to learn all kinds of things, but who are adamantly not interested in learning about tying shoes, hopscotching, balance beaming, and head-standing? Don't mistake this for a hypothetical question: I'm actually asking.

I have considered starting class conversation this way:

  • What could I tell you (pl.) this story is about that would make you (pl.) disagree with me?
  • Did you hate this story? Why/why not?
  • What would you say about this story just to sound good if someone mentioned it to you at a very important business meeting five years from now, minutes before you sign the big contract?
  • Name something painful that you'd rather do than discuss Updike's short story, "A&P."

And I've thought about giving lectures where I launch into ridiculous misdirections and bad interpretations (Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" is about alien abduction, Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a secret cooking recipe, etc.).

I remember learning in college that Confucius would take only one student at a time and would never take any but the most eager student. I want to be like Confucius. Help.


Krispen said...

Teachers pet syndrome might work to your advantage. I find when I manage people, which is similar to teaching in a lot of ways, the most eager student (Employee) can be held up as an example.

The trick to this, is to make a conscious effort to communicate how this individual is meeting expectations, and allow ample opportunity for others to follow suit and be recognized.

Start out with one "Teachers Pet" and soon you'll have two - the next most eager student will want to be included likely.

Be overt, and unapologetic, but clear that all students may participate at the same level. There needs to be awards/rewards. Superficial though they may be, there is a greater reward that is unspoken (Knowledge).

Just a thought, hope it helps.

John said...

Casey, I know this is late, but...have you discussed with your students the accreditation requirement(s) of the department and institution...and those requirements' relationship to their pending degree...and your class?

Doing so might help make clear to them that their probable perception of the college model--as a business, with them as the customer who is "paying" for the experience--is incorrect.

If they can't find the personal motivation or appreciation or value of what they have potential to learn in your classes (as, I don't believe that we can really "teach" them anything), you might make the "hard reality" (life is not fair, as our fathers have taught us) of the requirements held by this discourse community abundantly clear to them.

Knowing that they need to meet a standard in order for all components of the "system" to function (and remain accredited...and confer degrees), how many times would you need to give an 'F' before they (the class, college, department, etc.) come to understand how seriously you take the course content, your duties, and the institution (with its requirements) and all it means to get a college degree?

I am not sure about the culture at Wingate, but IF students really can't find a way to meet the course/departmental/college's objectives, how are YOU perceived if students don't do well? Is it your fault?

I think of this often, and I firmly believe that what we believe to be true about education might not be the right way to look at it. Not all of these students are there to learn what we KNOW to be important stuff for the betterment of their lives. Today's student is a different animal. They go to college for one reason: society says it is necessary to get a job and make money. Understanding that they might define success in my class differently than I do...and getting them to individually define that success and articulating it to you (or the class) can be extremely liberating for you. If a student says, "I just want to 'pass' this class and get my degree," I am liberated and don't kill myself to try to make them "get it" the way I think they should.

It might not help, but it can keep you from stressing...and give you some documentation as to the "why" of the grades they are bound to earn.

In a related note, read this article.

Casey said...

Krispen -- that's probably a skill worth practicing. I'll give it a whirl next semester (there's little to lose!).

John... I have only mentioned the accrediting agency in passing, when (for example) I tell students they have to hand in two final copies of a paper because, as part of accreditation, the English department needs to collect and re-evaluate a certain number of essays.

But yeah, I can see making it a more intentional part of the classroom dialogue -- that might help to make the curriculum a debatable point.

I suppose what I fear is sort of a special case in literature (I think I remember talking to you about this before, maybe at Chumley's)... in this "new world," where students are different animals, I fear that literature has already become a discipline unworthy of practice. Obviously, this could unravel into an argument about the use-value of the liberal arts in general: what does a 22-year old need to know about the Civil War in order to be a good junior-level key-pad-puncher at Joe Corporation?

So ultimately I'm stuck between my job and my calling -- I genuinely DO believe literature is a worthwhile discipline (indeed, I consider it a significant part of my "religion"), and I want to share that in the same way that an evangelical Christian wants to share the gospel. On the other hand, the increasing corporate culture of university life makes it seem as if my role is just to fulfill the business college's expectations that my students can produce neat-looking resumes.

That's disappointing to me personally. I understand it, practically -- but it's disappointing to me personally.

In any case, I will try what you recommend: making the demands I feel from the accrediting agency a shared burden with my students, rather than trying to act out a stage play that I didn't write.